How To: Come Back From The Unexpected
By Leigh Douglas
As creative freelancers, we take a more active part in planning our careers than many. We schedule our days and plan out our weeks like a game of Tetris. And God help us if life gets in the way of our hurrying, intricate maze of timings. While our 9 to 5 pals may have the luxury of things like maternity & compassionate leave, sick pay and an HR department, we have no such infrastructure around us. There is no set procedure for us for how to navigate life’s surprises. The unexpected in life is a terrifying universal of the human experience. But as a freelancer it also poses a logistical, financial, and professional nightmare.
When I graduated from drama school in 2017, I had a plan for where wanted to be three years later. A spoiler for you: it did not turn out as I had planned. I expected it to be hard. I expected rejection. I expected to work low-paying jobs to get by. I expected all of this. Yet, I also had a picture in mind of how I would meet certain career milestones, like getting my first agent agent. Maybe it is the actor’s ego, but I think every drama school student expects that they will be the diamond picked from the rough by a top agent at their final showcase. This did not happen for me. The most attention I received following my showcase was an older male agent approaching me at the soiree afterwards, and saying, he “didn’t need any more young girls” but to take this advice, “don’t get pregnant, it’ll ruin your career.” He said all this with a smile on his face as he munched on a sausage roll. This was far from the amazement he was meant to feel at my wonderful performance.
Yet, the man raises an interesting point (bear with me). In drama school I had been taught to give 110% every waking hour of the day to have a hope of success. I had been taught to run on empty. I had been taught to expect to miss family funerals and weddings. I had been taught that if I did not prioritize my career above absolutely everything else in my life, I might as well just give up. Thus, my plan for my future had left absolutely no time for the unexpected in life. As though, if I were simply dedicated enough, life would not be able to touch me. An unplanned pregnancy, illness, disability, or indeed, a worldwide public health crisis, these things were simply not allowed to happen to me.
A global pandemic was part of no one’s plan for this year. Many creative professionals, unfortunately, slipped through the cracks of government support and are now turning to work unrelated to their career goals in order to rebuild their finances. I myself am pulling pints and consider myself lucky to be doing so. To all of you working jobs that were not a part of your plan for 2020, solidarity! In my three short years out of drama school this is, unfortunately, not the first time I have had to face the art of coming back. I wanted to offer you all some hard-won wisdom on returning after the unexpected.
A year after graduating from drama school, I was only just beginning to get to grips with the reality of life as a professional actor. I say professional despite the fact that I was unrepresented and did no paid acting work during that year. This is important and I will come back to it later. I was just learning all the things I had not been taught in drama school, like how to balance the pursuit of my acting career with my day job as a receptionist with having a social life and a relationship. Then, in November 2018, on his fifty-fifth birthday, my Dad was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. It was inconceivable. My Dad, who took me with him to work out with his personal trainer when I came home to visit, who had a big barrel chest from a lifetime of rowing, who was always bursting with enthusiasm, was sick. He had been planning to announce his retirement that day, in order to pursue his dream of building a business as a life coach. Instead, he was given a maximum life-expectancy of eighteen months. Just like that, this intricate balancing act I was just beginning to master, became irrelevant. I quit my job, gave up my flat in London, put my things in storage and moved home to care for him. There was never a question that I was not going to do this.
I was very lucky in two respects. Firstly, due in no small part to his brilliance as a life coach, my father fully accepted his situation. He wasted no time being angry or bitter at the time that had been stolen from him. This meant my Mum and I could follow his lead and make the most of the time we had left with him. It is much easier to care for a sick person who is not angry that they are sick. Secondly, my Dad was a brilliant man whom I had a fantastic and close relationship with. Thus, it was a heartbreaking situation to be placed in, but I at least did not have the added burden of anger to contend with.
However, my body reacted to the situation in ways I did not expect. As many of us will have experienced in this recent lockdown, I went from sprinting across London to make it to an audition and back within my lunchbreak, to sitting in stillness in the house for the majority of my days. In many ways, I think I went through an addict’s process of withdrawal from all the stimulation of an average day of my life in London. Caring for my Dad, I was hyper-focused on his every movement and every breath, but I felt disoriented without having fourty-seven other things to be thinking about at the same time.
I developed insomnia. However, the worries that kept my brain ticking hour after hour in the night, were not thoughts of my Dad’s pain, his newly appeared symptoms or his rapidly deteriorating condition. Those worries occupied my daylight hours. But at night, I was kept awake by chest tightening panic over the future of my career. Although the circumstances which had taken me away from my career were out of my control, I felt that I had failed. The temporary loss of my career attacked the core of who I was. My career was my identity. Without it, I was a failure. I had been taught that there was a time pressure on my opportunity for success, that I had to achieve success before I started to show signs of aging and was thrust back to square one to start again in a new bracket. I would lie awake at night thinking I could feel wrinkles etching there way across my face, making my chances of success less. Taking a break was so against everything I had been taught. I felt like my brain was manically pedaling on a stationary bike, trying to make it move. If I don’t get to be an actor, I wondered, who am I?
I woke up every night with numb hands. I was in such a fatalistic headspace that I thus convinced myself that some sinister diagnosis was also looming in my future. I told no one. When I finally confessed to my physiotherapist auntie after months of anxiety, she gave me the once over. She told me I was holding so much tension in my neck and shoulders that it was cutting off the nerves to my hands. This tension in my body was definitely in large part due to the adrenaline which was coursing through me at regular intervals when I had to rush my Dad to the hospital with a new complication. But I am convinced this career withdrawal I was experiencing was also a major contributing factor. I had far too much time on my own at night, to think about and reflect on everything I had not yet achieved, without being able to do anything at all about it in the morning. Sound familiar?
Granted, in my year away caring for my Dad, I watched the industry carry on without me whereas in this recent crisis, the entire industry was ground to a halt. Yet, in the past six months I have listened as friends have shared with me how they have struggled with their mental health during lockdown and it has been as though they have been describing my own feelings back to me from my time away caring for my Dad.
Dad passed away on March 29, 2019. Mum and I went interrailing together in May and June. In July, I faced what we are all facing now, coming back. Oliver Dowden’s laughable, flaccid, too-late support for the creative industries has made clear the value the government places on the work of creative professionals. As a result, many will decide to leave life as a creative freelancer behind after Covid-19. I have nothing but respect for this. Follow your joy. However, here are some thoughts I have for those of you choosing to face the challenge of returning.
Coming back is daunting. I think that is important to acknowledge. It is not a case of simply slipping back into the life from before. You may not immediately get back into the same level of work you were doing before. The only person judging that is you. With most creative industries on life support, there is less work available than before. That is a fact. It is not a judgement on your capability or talent if the level of work you are being offered has dropped. Many of us are taught that we have to be working in order to be a professional at what we do. Unemployment as a creative is tantamount to demotion to a hobbyist. However, not immediately launching yourself into paid work in your chosen discipline does not make you an amateur. It also does not mean that you are not working hard enough in pursuit of your goals. I was fiercely protective of my mental health after losing my Dad, as we all should be now. In the first few months after I returned to London, I chose not to immediately focus on acting in the business sense. I focused first on finding a job to pay the bills that I didn’t mind waking up for in the morning. That brought me confidence. I let myself spend time with the friends I had been isolated from while I had been away. I went back to acting classes to reconnect with my training and remind myself of my passion for what I do. I did all this without writing to a single agent or applying for a single casting. I did this because those things had been the sources of feelings of failure and anxiety while I had been away. We are living through a big moment in history. It is okay to take a beat to make sure your bills are paid, and your mental health is in check before throwing yourself at your career goals with full force. Enrich your soul with things that bring you joy before cracking the whip too hard.
This brings me to the big lesson I took away from being “unemployed” for a year while I cared full-time for my Dad. You are not your career. Your value as a human being is not limited to your level of career success. I went to drama school with a near-Shakespearean bully. I know for a fact that he has referred to me as a failure. He has been more successful than me since we left drama school. That is a fact. There was a time when that would have devastated me. He is more successful than me. I know that. But I have things beside my career to take pride in. I am proud of how I cared for my Dad. I didn’t think I would be able to handle it the way I did. The experience taught me that I can rely on myself to stay coolheaded in an emergency and that others can rely on me to do what needs to be done in a high stress situation. I didn’t know that before. So that’s the first thing I take pride in besides my career:
1. I took good care of my Dad when he needed me.
2. I am a good friend. My friends turn to me and trust me.
3. I am good craic (especially after a pint or two) and I can make people laugh.
4. I show up for people and things (my little cousin’s youth theatre show, my grandparents’ wedding anniversary—some things are too important to the people I love to miss, sorry not sorry drama school)
5. I work hard to see the positives in life.
Which brings me to my first task for you:
Take a moment and write a list of five things you take pride in. None of them can be career related. If this is difficult, think about your friends and your closest love ones. What would they say about you? They don’t choose to love you based on your career success. What do the people who love you love about you? Be strict with yourself. No need to stop at five but write down at least five things that make you proud to be the human being that you are.
So, we have our baseline. We are all human beings who are not defined solely by our careers. Now, any time away will change your relationship to your work. That is natural. There is an opportunity in the fresh perspective we all will have gained through lockdown. Any opportunity to reflect and reset let’s us see things with greater clarity. The first few times you are back in a room for an audition or an interview, take a few moments after you leave to write down your immediate response. Perhaps you feel anxiety around a particular meeting. Maybe the thought of one job fills you with excitement while the idea of another leaves you deflated. Take note. This is valuable information. We are able to feel emotional gut responses with more clarity in this particular moment. Use that emotional sensitivity we will all be feeling just now to help you carve a path. The bit of distance this recent pause has given us all may help you make discoveries that it would have taken you longer to come to otherwise.
When I first left drama school I jumped at every opportunity. I had been taught to be open. I had been taught to say Yes. I had been taught I was lucky to be in any room I managed to wrestle my way into. When I came back after losing my Dad, I decided there were certain types of jobs I was no longer willing to do. That doesn’t make me any less dedicated to my craft. I have simply learned to put my focus on what truly excites me. My mental health is too precious to me now to contort myself into a job that doesn’t fit. In short, I have learned what my No is. None of us have had very much control over the past six months. As a creative freelancer it can often feel that our careers are in the hands of others. Finding your No gives you power over your own direction. Taking a few moments, as we return to a new normality, to decide what you actually want will give you a bit of control back over your own destiny. It will help put you in the direction of work that brings you joy. It will mean that any work you do accept will align with the core values you listed above that make you proud to be who you are. In the horrible, corporate, marketing sense, it gives you your USP.
My final piece of advice is perhaps the most important. So, you’ve made your list of five things that make you proud to be you. You’ve taken a few minutes after your first few forays back into professional life to jot down your gut impressions about what might be an exciting new direction and what makes you feel icky and stressed and is therefore perhaps something to leave behind. Now, maybe, you’re still stressed. Fair play. There’s a global pandemic on and our industry is on life support. For the love of God, do not suffer in silence. Not comparing ourselves to others, trying not to be competitive with our peers, and being truly happy for others when they succeed is something that we can all work on. It is hard. Social media lies. It tells us everyone is doing better than we are. Unfortunately, for any of us who have not yet achieved everything that we wish to achieve (which should be all of us), we have just had five months sitting on our sofas to reflect on everything we have not yet achieved without being able to do nearly anything about it. There is a natural self-protective instinct to be private when things are not going as we might wish. However, any anxiety that you do not expel by sharing it with others stays trapped inside your physical body. I will say that again because I didn’t learn this until far later than I should have. Any anxiety which you do not expel by sharing it with others stays trapped inside your physical body. Strength is not holding all your worries and fears inside. Anxiety isn’t just mental; it has an impact on your physical health. You might even find yourself waking up in the night with numb hands.
So, this is what I would like you to do:
Make a list of three people who you have enjoyed working or training with, whom you might feel comfortable reaching out to. Check in on them and ask how they’re doing. Open a space for a conversation about the stress of this present moment. As creative freelancers, besides the infrastructure of an HR department and a clear management structure, we also miss out on the watercooler chat that our office-based friends might benefit from. It can often feel as though we’re doing something on our own. When of course, we’re not. The beautiful part of the situation we find ourselves in is that happened to all of us at the same time. It may be that the person you reach out to isn’t open to the conversation. Fair play. It is a f****ing stressful time and perhaps they’re not ready to talk about it. However, it may also be that you are able to alleviate some of their anxiety, by letting them know that you are worried and stressed too.
Two of my drama school pals told me that they recently met up and told each other all the reasons they were jealous of each other. The result? They both discovered that while they thought they were a failure in comparison to their friend and their friend was the successful one, the other person had been having just the same thought about them all along. They both left with a weight lifted. Any tension which had existed in their relationship due to jealousy had been expelled.
Certainly, in drama school, there is a culture of being in competition with each other. This is a load of bollocks. I have learned so much from the people who, since I left drama school, have been the first to send me a job they think I might be good for, even when they also fit the casting themselves. The result? I now also send those people jobs I think they might be good for, even when I am going up for the job myself. It is such a valuable lesson. Everyone wins when we help each other. Starting a conversation is the beginning. Admit that you need help, and, in my experience, people will be ready to give it to you. Unfortunately, you just have to take the nasty medicine of vulnerability first.
When I came back after losing my Dad, there weren’t many people in my professional circle who could relate to losing a parent, but that didn’t mean that they couldn’t relate to my professional anxieties. And guess what? Those things that you listed that make you proud to be the person you are? They are the same reasons that your collaborators will value you and want to help. It took a lot for me to text friends and collaborators and tell them I needed them. It wounded my pride to reach out and say I was really f****ing struggling. But guess what? None of those people thought any the less of me. They reflected my successes back to me and showed me myself from the outside. They showed me I am not a failure. They let me know that they had the same worries. They answered the phone and dropped everything to see me. They did none of this because of my acting talent. They did all of this because they valued me as a human being. Co-workers from twenty years ago did not send my Dad letters and presents when he was sick because of his career success. They did it because they had a human connection with him that meant something to them. Three hundred people did not show up to his funeral because of his job title. They showed up because he was a kind, good man who had had an impact on them. This is what I hold on to in my dark moments, when I feel I may never succeed. God forbid, if I should be struck down tomorrow, whether I ever made it on telly wouldn’t actually matter. What would matter, would be that I could be proud of the person I have lived to be. If my friendships and the love I have for my family, biological and chosen, end up being the towering achievements of my life, that would be alright with me.
Stay healthy. Stay sane. Stay empowered. And remember, if you bring joy to the lives of the people you love, you are not a failure. Towering career achievements are a bonus.
By Leigh Douglas